Coupons: ethnographic reflections on displacement

by Talia Katz

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In the following ethnographic vignette, I share reflections on the nature of the collective and how performance may elucidate the social violence embedded in the always unfinished process of claiming a ‘we.’ The play’s Hebrew title is Tlushim and plays on the double meaning of the word. As a noun, it refers literally to coupons or rations. As an adjective, it gives a sense of social detachment, being torn, picked, or plucked. Dealing with the experiences of North African Jews who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s-1960s and were placed in Ma’abarot[1] [temporary housing camps], the title conjures references to the dual violences of migration and bureaucratic absorption.

“Once, I was”

“I’m not from here”

“I know how to read”

“Grinding gravel, grinding gravel”

These are the sentences that echo through the theatre as the cast of the play Tlushim goes through the last of their warm up exercises before their performance. The theatre at which they are performing is located in Tel Aviv and has become known for hosting experimental, fringe productions. In this diction exercise, each cast member must select one of their lines and speak it as clearly as possible, enunciating every sound with care. While this is a play I have yet to see, their short lines already have already marked the room with an intense sense of loss and disorientation.

While normally I join the warmups, this time I am seated in a black plastic chair on their side — I have recently broken two toes and cannot stand easily. The play will not begin for another 45 minutes, but I am here early. As the cast flows between their warm up exercises and last minute wardrobe changes, they come sit on the chairs around me, asking what I’m taking notes on, chatting, and offering to share the mint tea that will be distributed to the audience shorty.

The cast is small- four main actors and two supporting actors from the community theatre group who have joined this professional ensemble. This play, Tlushim, has emerged out of long-term research that the cast has engaged in with the North African residents of Lod. They have spent time with residents who lived in the Ma’abarot, the transit camps that housed the thousands of Jewish immigrants, mostly from the Middle East and North Africa, but also Holocaust survivors, in the 1950s-1960s as the newly founded state struggled to absorb displaced persons. As for the research process, the theatre group has spent months in the homes of their Moroccan and Tunisian neighbors (interviewing, sharing meals), conducting archival research, and organizing focus group meetings with community leaders. After each encounter, the cast members sit together to write, letting whatever reflections, in whatever form, fill their papers and become a part of the performance script. Later I will learn that one of my favorite monologues of the play is a poem, now spliced, that the director wrote one night after feeling particularly moved by one of the interviews.

When members of the Lod Theatre Center ask me why I would spend time in Lod of all places, I often answer that I was drawn to their writing and research process, which seemed ethnographic and the issues they chose to focus on felt particularly resonant for me as an anthropology student. For the final text of the play (though there is always improvisation), each cast member has modeled her role after one of their interlocutors from the research process, someone with whom they identified and connected. The director has been clear though that these characters are not representations of their interlocutors, they are inspired by fragments of their stories.

A few weeks before the performance, the director had driven me to the train station after the community group’s rehearsal.  Worried that there may not be enough audience members, she had asked if I could invite my friends to the production. I had told her that I could try, but that it might be difficult because many of my friends are English speakers and I didn’t know how willing they would be to spend a summer evening in a performance they wouldn’t understand. As we pulled into the unloading lane, the director, P tells me that language doesn’t matter so much, they don’t need to understand all the words, they will feel something and that will be enough. As I closed the car door I tell her I told her I would try, but I was doubtful.

I was wrong. Within the first two minutes of the play, I understand what P had meant that night. What then, might it mean, to hear the story of another without words?

To begin, as audience members, we are all seated in a square. It is as if we are in a make-shift Israeli-Moroccan living room. A bulky television sits atop a lace doily covered cabinet. Jars of sweets, jelly cookies, and flour are perched around the room. Children’s toys- jacks, marbles- are clumped in a pile on the side. In the corner diagonal to the marbles hang trench coats and fedora hats.  Dim, warm fairy lights are strung above us. Just as we are taking in the scene, the lights are cut and from out of the blackness, L says “I’m not from here. In a minute, they’re coming to take me.” As we take in this scene again, the rest of the cast comes out hurriedly, in a frenzy, moving us from seat to seat until we are all separated from those with whom we arrived. Each of the four actors begins to interface with different audience members.

Hello. Where did you come from?

Excellent. Interesting. Get up please. Come with me.

The exchanges occur in different tones and as such, we glean a fragment of each of their biographies. The child, skips around, asking capriciously, whimsically. Sometimes she mentions her father, who has begun to sell shoes now that he lives in the camp. The businessman moves with seriousness and a certain deflation, his shoulders hunch and he speaks nostalgically of the business deals that are no more, he used to sell to the King of Morocco, before he got here. With Rebecca, the encounter is hesitant, almost apologetic. I point to the crutches leaning beside me and she offers me a blessing for complete and quick recovery. When L comes over, she is intense and speaks authoritatively.  She asks me to move and I again point to my crutches. She looks down at my bandaged foot but decides I still must move and asks me to at least switch seats with the woman next to me. When we switch, she appears satisfied with the compromise.

As we settle into our new seats with our new neighbors, S, one of the supporting characters, comes out to serve us mint tea. She apologizes, there is no sugar, it is just like this these days. As the audience members in the room take their first sips of tea, most quickly spit the diluted liquid back into their cups and try as gracefully as possible to tuck the half full glasses away, under their black plastic chairs. A few people make a continued effort to stomach the bland liquid, my neighbor whispers to me, this is really bad but takes a few more sips anyways. A hands a few people jelly cookies, but not everyone receives one.[2]

The four actors stand in the center of the room and begin to move in fluid, animalistic, motions. According to the script that I later read, their stage cue is (לנזול) — to drip, to leak, the same root used for a runny nose. Their movements are organic and rather haunting. As they move, a recording plays over the speaker:

“If you want to make a Jew into an Israeli who will take part in founding a sovereign state with its own language, he needs to annul, to invest, to stash away, and to remove from himself all of the signs and characteristics of the diaspora. In and of itself, if speaking about a goal for the long term, the goal is correct. But, in the way that it was done, in the rhythm that it was done, we had taken tens of thousands of people, people of adult age, people in their 30s, 40s, 50s. You break them if you ask them to go through a process of absolute cleansing — from foods, sounds, customs, religious inheritance. People, and thousands of people, and basically not just once, experienced a process of internal fracturing. So this creates psychological problems, emotional problems (enormous ones) for these people.”

The first time I listen to the recording, during the performance, it is a little fuzzy and I cannot make out all the words. The voice sounds authoritative, official, and weighty, I wonder if this is a psychiatrist speaking. Later, it will be through these words internal fracturing, psychological that I am able to identify this segment of the recording when I watch the documentary from which it was taken, Haaliyah Hagdola (The Great Ascendance).

Though during the play I am not able to focus on these details, after, as I listen to the clip again and again, I am struck by the oscillation in perspective– the narrator switches from speaking in a second person address, to the third person, to the impersonal, passive voice, back to the direct second person again, then again to the impersonal, ending in a matter of fact state of distance. The first switch between the second person and the third person is sharp and noticeable, from you to he as the violence of nation of made known. In the twists between pronouns and voices, the speaker rocks back and forth, dancing in the interstices of the political and the personal.  The only sentence in which he invoked the ‘we’ is the point at which he acknowledges a collective culpability.

Meanwhile, the cast begins to decompose on stage. We, the audience, are given fragments – of stories, of senses, of scenes- with which to grapple with their decomposition. The actors surprise us not only with what it is that they share, but how they share it. For instance, P, who wears opaque black tights and a short skirt, does not offer a monologue, but instead shares a series of words, all heavily linked to the sound kh, such that she sounds either sick, or like a snake, or some type of animal, I am not sure which description makes the most sense. From the words she chooses (pioneer, gravel, planner) and how she cycles through them, repeatedly, intensely, without break, she seems to signal that her hopes for joining the Zionist project, for raising an Israeli family, for marrying, have transformed into the gravel that she is grinding into smaller and smaller pieces. As she repeats the words, she begins to grind her hips. She finds one of the married couples that manages to stick together during the play and goes to stand in front of them. As she circles her hips and moves her skirt higher up her leg, revealing her opaque, black tights, she asks the man, “don’t you want to marry me? Aren’t I arousing?” The audience laughs nervously and she goes back to her sensual dance. The three other actors continue to move drowsily around the stage.

In one of the most striking scenes, P, the actress playing a child-beggar, asks audience members for donations. When they only place an imaginary donation in her bag, she screeches “give me for real!” Soon audience members are nervously feeling around in their pockets, anticipating her requests, searching for something satisfactory. As P goes about the room with her open plastic bag, she bursts into a fractured, poetic monologue, meshing the expected with the unexpected as she asks for donations to her jar:

Put sweets and cookies in my jar, give me because I deserve everything and my father is a cobbler. Give me . . .  love . . .  and my father will pay, give me [to a woman], give me [to a man], give me [to a group] because mine, I already gave away. To Fatima from the Wadi and to Yikud the neighbor. Because I won’t distribute the antenna. [change of tone, witful, calmer, less intense, a sort of retreat] At least give me …  nature … and a cow that will give birth. Give me because I’m not just beatings and laughter, [pause] and my father will pay. Put in my bag more experiences even though this jar that you [plural] emptied will never be filled with the same things again. Give me . . .  [trails off] Give me. Give me some of the honor that you had there and I’ll guard it in the emptied cookie jar. Give me more and I’ll also give to the old woman from the Holocaust who doesn’t leave her house, she is emaciated, closed off like a demon. Give me quiet and a few hours of sleep and if possible a secretary and a producer who will be next to me regularly, and a few more hours in the week to manage all of this. Take from me those memories that don’t release their grip on me, put a border between me and unpleasant people because I  . . . I see all of you. I see you withered. Trying to preserve what was once – not the honor nor the money nor the light in your eyes. You’re trying to preserve the custom-made shirt turned alcoholic who touches girls in the bathroom. I see you being crushed right in front of my eyes. You’re trying to fill the jar. It will never be filled with the same thing.

As Tlushim comes to an end, the four actors stand in the center of the room. They have flour caked on their faces and, by this point, they must take care not to trip on the jelly cookies, marbles, and children’s toys strew around the living room. Their eyes are glassy, their voices cracked, as they hook their arms together and slowly, as if there were water in their mouths, produce the sentence:

“How/
do you [feminine]/
look at/
us/
as an /
Ashkenazi Jew [feminine]?”

The use of the feminine here is jarring, as if to insist on the limits of gendered empathy in relation to the material and psychic reality of what it was to experience the Ma’abarot. As the actors stand in the middle of the stage, a house manager comes out to tell us audience members that we may leave, that our new apartments are ready. I am confused and do not know if this is the intermission or really the end of the play. Since I am walking with crutches, a staff member offers to help me carry my bag and it is only upon hearing this offer that I realize we really are exiting the theatre, that there will be no applause, no neatly wrapped ending.

[1] Translating Ma’abarot has been very challenging as the majority of English translations – temporary housing settlement, new immigrant absorption camp, refugee camp – carry strong references to the state that the Hebrew word, Ma’abarot, quite purposefully elides. Ma’abarot comes from the root, “to cross over” and was meant to conjure images of a peaceful, temporary bridge. I find it important that when I was learning the word myself, no one offered “refugee camp” or “absorption center” as a synonym, the word retained a unique singularity.

[2] Later, the director (who plays P, the child) says that this was very upsetting to her that A didn’t manage to give everyone something sweet to eat. When I ask her to tell me more about why this was such a serious mistake, she explains that she felt it wasn’t write to bring the group into an experience so bitter, so full of sorrow, without offering something sweet.

Talia Katz is a PhD student in the department of anthropology and a graduate affiliate of the Johns Hopkins Center for Medical Humanities and Social Medicine. Her research tracks shifting notions of trauma and healing in relation to the global institutionalization and proliferation of creative arts therapies. Prior to coming to Hopkins, she conducted ethnographic research on the intersections of sexual violence, nationalism, and mental health care in East Africa through a Parker Huang Travel Fellowship. She holds a BA in anthropology magna cum laude from Yale University.